Thursday, May 7, 2009
A portrait of the artist as a family man (Review: All the Days and Nights by Doug Dubois)
Just a little while ago, Doug Dubois was maybe the archetypical photographers' photographer: An artist well known and deeply admired by other practitioners, but without the wider recognition that so many of his colleagues felt he deserved. Thankfully, there now is All the Days and Nights, which comprises Doug's photography from 1994 onwards. Fifteen years of photography of his own family.
In a sense, almost all of us are family photographers. We all own cameras with which we capture family life to some extent, be it gatherings at holidays, outing or sports events, vacations, or whatever else there might be. The main characteristic of family photography is that it really only is interesting for those who belong to the family (and even then looking through a sibling's holiday snaps, say, can be quite a drag): While for someone from within the family circle there seems to be an almost an infinite number of meanings (most of them encoded in the tiniest of gestures or poses), for someone from the outside most - if not all - of that knowledge is hidden, and the photographs are just photographs of strangers who often behave in somewhat strange ways.
This is what makes photography of one's family as an art project so hard: For it to succeed the photographer has to convey what is happening in a group of people most of whose life is hidden from everybody else and she or he has to convey it in such a way that it seems natural, without ending up with cliches of sentimentality. What a challenge!
With this in mind it is easy to see why (or rather how) the most successful photography in this genre succeeds: It knows about the viewers lacking knowledge of what is going on inside the small circle of people portrayed, and it invites the viewer to have a look at the human condition, taking the family as an example.
Doug's work is centered on many wonderful portraits of his various family members - or maybe I should write that for me the portraits are the center pieces of All the Days and Nights. The sheer number of truly outstanding portraits in this book is amazing (and I will confess that I haven't even looked all that much at the occasional photo of an unfinished puzzle or some toy dinosaurs on the floor). All the Days and Nights clearly works through its portraits, and it is the portraits of his mother that has Doug at his best.
Hopefully, All the Days and Nights will give Doug Dubois's work the wider exposure it clearly deserves. As a book about family life, this clearly is how one would want to do it.